Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith


  Still—600 pages makes one think.

  The first half of Christabel—how perfect that is, and how it makes one laugh. A mix of empathy and ventriloquism fuels the comic engines of his novels; here in the broadcasts it’s reemployed as sly technique, allowing Forster to approach the congenital anti-intellectualism of the English from an oblique angle, one that flatters them with complicity. Here he is, up to the same thing with D. H. Lawrence:Much of his work is tedious, and some of it shocks people, so that we are inclined to say: “What a pity! What a pity to go on about the subconscious and the solar plexus and maleness and femaleness and African darkness and the cosmic battle when you can write with such insight about human beings and so beautifully about flowers.

  Have you had that thought? Don’t worry if you have; so has E. M. Forster. Still, it’s a mistake:You can’t say, “Let’s drop his theories and enjoy his art,” because the two are one. Disbelieve his theories, if you like, but never brush them aside. . . . He resembles a natural process much more nearly than do most writers . . . and one might as well scold a flower for growing on a manure heap, or a manure heap for producing a flower.

  It’s a gentle correction, but a serious one, aimed democratically at both listener and speaker. And like this, pursuing a gentle push and pull, iron fist hidden in velvet glove, Forster presses on in his determined, middling way. He’s educating you, but surreptitiously, and unlike the writings of his childhood hero, Matthew Arnold, it never feels painful. The legerezza of his prose lightens every load. Speaking on the twentieth of June, 1945, Forster outlines Arnold’s more muscular approach:One of his complaints against his countrymen was that they were eccentric and didn’t desire to be anything else. They didn’t want to be better informed or urbane, or to know what is great in human achievement. They didn’t want culture. And he flung at them another of his famous accusations: Philistines. The philistine is the sort of person who says “I know what I know and I like what I like, and that’s the kind of chap I am.” And Matthew Arnold, a Victorian David, slung his pebble bang in the middle of Goliath’s forehead.

  Forster was no pebble slinger. For him, not only the means but also the aims were to be different. It really didn’t matter to Forster if a fellow had read Lawrence or not (he is consistently sentimental about the unlettered: peasants, sailors, gardeners, natives). But to deny Lawrence, because he was not to your taste, or to deny poetry itself, out of fear and incomprehension—that mattered terribly. The only philistinism that counted was the kind that deformed the heart, trapping us in an attitude of scorn and fear until scorn and fear are all we know. On the twelfth of February 1947, recommending Billy Budd, Forster finds an unlikely ally in Melville:He also shows that . . . innocence is not safe in a civilization like ours, where a man must practice a “ruled undemonstrative distrustfulness” in order to defend himself against traps. This “ruled undemonstrative distrustfulness” is not confined to business men, but exists everywhere. We all exercise it. I know I do, and I should be surprised if you, who are listening to me, didn’t. All we can do (and Melville gives us this hint) is to exercise it consciously, as Captain Vere did. It is unconscious distrustfulness that corrodes the heart and destroys the heart’s insight, and prevents it from saluting goodness.

  Unconscious distrustfulness is what Lucy Honeychurch feels toward George Emerson, what Philip Herriton feels in Italy, what Maurice Hall feels for his own soul. Forster nudges his characters toward a consciousness of this weakness in themselves; they do battle against it and win. They learn to salute goodness. Sometimes this is achieved with delicacy and the illusion of freedom, as it is in A Room with a View; at other times, in Maurice, say, happiness arrives a good deal more dogmatically (though no less pleasurably). But it is always Forster’s game by Forster’s rules. In radio, though, each man’s consciousness is his own. There are no Lucy Honeychurches to play with—only nameless, faceless listeners whose sensibilities can only be guessed at, only assumed. In the anxiety of this unfamiliar situation, a comic novelist, with his natural weakness for caricature, is apt to assume too much. The broadcasts suffer from empathic condescension: Forster is unconvinced that we might also, like him, be capable of a broad sympathetic sensibility. Recommending two memoirs, one by Sir Henry Newbolt (a patriotic, public-school adventurer with “a touch of the medieval knight about him”), and another by Mr. Grant Richards ( a “gay and irresponsible” fin de siècle journalist who “loves Paris with a fervour”), he predicts two camps of readers, split by sensibility, unable to understand each other:Mr. Grant Richards is a very different story. The title he has given his memoirs proves that: he calls them Memoirs of a Misspent Youth. . . . Like Sir Henry Newbolt he is a friend of Rothenstein and was fond of birdnest ing, but those are the only bond between them. . . . The atmosphere of the book one might call Bohemian, and if you find yourself in complete sympathy with Sir Henry Newbolt you won’t care for Memories of a Misspent Youth and vice versa.

  There is an element of the nervous party host in Forster; he fears people won’t speak to each other unless he’s there to facilitate the introduction. Occasionally his image of the general reader is almost too general to recognize. Who dreads philosophy so much they need easing into Plato like this?

  The word Plato has rather a boring sound. For some reason or other “Plato” always suggests to me a man with a large head and a noble face who never stops talking and from whom it is impossible to escape.

  Who’s (this) afraid of The Magic Flute?

  It’s a lovely book,19 I implore you to read it, but rather unluckily it’s based on an opera by Mozart. I say “unluckily” not because the opera is bad, it is Mozart’s best, but because many readers of the book won’t have heard of the opera, and so won’t catch on the allusions. You’ll have to be prepared for some queer names.

  No one reading these words, perhaps. On the other side of the class and educational divide—a line that so preoccupied Forster—it’s easy to forget what it’s like not to know. Forster was always thinking of those who did not know. He worries that simply by having this one-way conversation he pushes the Alec Scudders in his audience still further into the shadows. Frequently he asks the (necessarily) rhetorical question “And what do you think?” We can be sure that Eliot, in the next booth over, never asked that. But isn’t there a point where empathy becomes equivocation? Can’t you hear Henry Wilcox, fuming: “Good God, man, it’s not what I think that matters! I’m paying my license fee to hear what you think!”

  Henry would want a few strong opinions, the better to repeat them to his wife and pass them off as his own. Forster does have strong opinions to offer. At first glance, they seem the sort of thing of which Henry would approve:I like a novel to be a novel. I expect it to be about something or someone. . . . I get annoyed. It is foolish to get annoyed. One can cure oneself, and should. It is foolish to insist that a novel must be a novel. One must take what comes along, and see if it’s good.

  But halfway through that paragraph Forster has given Henry the slip.

  In the foreword to this volume, P. N. Furbank calls Forster “the great simplifier.” It’s true he wrote simply, had a gift for the simple expression of complex ideas, but he never made a religion of simplicity itself. He under-stood and defended the expression of complexity in its own terms. He was E. M. Forster: he didn’t need everyone else to be like him. Which would appear the simplest, most obvious principle in the world—yet how few English novelists prove capable of holding it! In English fiction, realists defend realism and experimentalists defend experimentalism; those who write simple sentences praise the virtues of concision, and those who are fond of their adjectives claim the lyrical as the highest value in literature. Forster was different. Several times he reminds his listeners of the Bhagavad Gita and in particular the advice Krishna gives Arjina: “But thou hast only the right to work; but none to the fruit thereof; let not then the fruit of thy action be thy motive; nor yet be thou enamoured in inaction.” Forster took that advice: he could
sit in his own literary corner without claiming its superiority to any other. Stubbornly he defends Joyce, though he doesn’t much like him, and Woolf, though she bemuses him, and Eliot, though he fears him. His recommendation of Paul Valéry’s An Evening with Monsieur Teste is representative:Well, the first line is illuminating. “La bêtise n’est pas mon fort.” Stupidity is not my strong point. No it wasn’t. Valery was never never stupid. If he had been stupid sometimes, he would no doubt have been more in touch with the rest of us, who are stupid so frequently. That was his limitation. Remember on the other hand what limitations are ours, and how much we lose by our failure to follow the action of a superior mind.

  Forster was not Valéry, but he defended Valéry’s right to be Valéry. He understood the beauty of complexity and saluted it where he saw it. His own preference for simplicity he recognized for what it was, a preference, linked to a dream of mass connection. He placed no particular force behind it:And it’s Mister Heard’s20 sympathy that I want to stress. He doesn’t write because he is learned and clever and fanciful, although he is all these things. He writes because he knows of our troubles from within and wants to help with them. I wish he wrote more simply, because then more of us might be helped. That, really, is my only quarrel with him.

  3

  Occupying “a midway position” between the aristocrat’s memoir and that of the bohemian, Forster recommends As We Are, the memoir of Mr. E. F. Benson (“The book’s uneven—bits of it are perfunctory, but bits are awfully good”). He finds one paragraph particularly wise on “the problem of growing old” and quotes it:Unfortunately there comes to the majority of those of middle age an inelasticity not of physical muscle and sinew alone but of mental fibre. Experience has its dangers: it may bring wisdom, but it may also bring stiffness and cause hardened deposits in the mind, and its resulting inelasticity is crippling.

  Is it inelasticity that drives English writers to religion (Greene, Waugh, Eliot), to an anticulture stance (Wells, K. Amis, Larkin), to the rejection of accepted modes of literary seriousness (Wodehouse, Greene)? Better, I think, to credit it to a healthy English perversity, a bloody-minded war against cliché. It’s a cliché to think liking Keats makes you cultured (Larkin and Amis defaced their college copy of The Eve of St. Agnes21), a commonplace to think submission to God incompatible with intellectual vitality. Then again, it’s hard to deny that in many of these writers a calcification occurs, playful poses become rigid attitudes. Forster feared the sea change. In the year Forster finished broadcasting, in the same BBC studios, Evelyn Waugh submits to an interviewer interested in his “notable rejection of life”: Interviewer: What do you feel is your worst fault?

  Waugh: Irritability.

  Interviewer: Irritability with your family? With strangers?

  Waugh: Absolutely everything. Inanimate objects and people, animals, everything . . .

  Forster worked hard to avoid this fate, first through natural inclination and then, later, by way of a willed enthusiasm, an openness to everything that itself skirts perilously close to banality. He did not believe in the “rejection of life,” not for reasons of irritability, asceticism, intellectual fastidiousness or even mystical attachments. He quotes approvingly this discussion, from The Magic Flute, between Jesus and Buddha:“Lord Buddha, was your gospel true?”

  “True and False.”

  “What was true in it?”

  “Selflessness and Love.”

  “What false?”

  “Flight from Life.”

  In the wartime broadcasts in particular Forster gets into life, though with difficulty: you sense in more peaceful times he would have left the public speaking to those more suited to it. Passing H. G. Wells in the street in the early forties, Forster recalls Wells “calling after me in his squeaky voice ‘Still in your ivory tower?’ ‘Still on your private roundabout?’ I might have retorted, but did not think of it till now.”

  During the war Forster got onto his own roundabout, broadcasting mild English propaganda to India, ridiculing Nazi “philosophy” from the early thirties onward, attacking the prison and police systems, defending the Third Program, speaking up for mass education, the rights of refugees, free concerts for the poor and art for the masses. Recognizing that “humanism has its dangers; the humanist shirks responsibility, dislikes making decisions, and is sometimes a coward,” he was anyway determined to hold faith with the “failed” liberal values so many of his peers now jettisoned. “Do we, in these terrible times, want to be humanists or fanatics? I have no doubt as to my own wish, I would rather be a humanist with all his faults, than a fanatic with all his virtues.” Forster, an Edwardian, lived through two cataclysmic wars, watched England’s transformation from elegant playground of the fortunate few to the mass factory of everybody. And still he kept faith with the future. In the greatest of his broadcasts, “What I Believe,” a much longer piece absent from this volume, he sympathizes with our natural reactionary instincts but doesn’t submit to them: “This is such a difficult moment to live in, one cannot help getting gloomy and also a bit rattled, and perhaps short-sighted.” As our present crop of English novelists get a bit rattled, Forster’s example begins to look exemplary.

  On Forster’s centenary, again in the same studio, another notable English novelist good-humoredly recognizes his own U-turn, motivated by gloom:Interviewer: In 1964, in an essay called “No More Parades” you said you felt that British culture was the property of some sort of exclusive club and you’d always bitterly resented that fact; I get the impression from certain things you’ve written recently that you resent the fact that it’s not the property of an exclusive club any longer. . . .

  Kingsley Amis: (laughing) That’s right, yes. . . .

  But Forster was clever about even this kind of literary insincerity: “The simple view is that creation can only proceed from sincerity. But the facts don’t always bear this out. The insincere, the half sincere, may on occasion contribute.” Lucky for the English that this should be so. On the third of October 1932, Forster considers a critical study of Wordsworth, a writer who, like Amis, “moved from being a Bolshie . . . to being a die-hard.” The study argues that Wordsworth “had a great deal to cover up,” having had an affair and an illegitimate child with a French woman, Annette Vallon, all of which he kept hidden. Back in England he made a hypocritical fetish of his own puritanism and lived “to be a respectable and intolerant old man.” Something calcified in Wordsworth: he ended up hating the France he’d loved as a youth, becoming a “poet of conventional morality,” more concerned with public reputation than with poetry itself. Forster too had a good deal to hide and kept it hidden; one feels in his attention to the Wordsworth story the recognition of a morality tale. It is almost as if, with the door of his private sexuality firmly closed, Forster willed himself to open every window. This curious inverse effect is most noticeable in the honesty and flexibility of his criticism. On his affection for Jane Austen: “She’s English, I’m English, and my fondness for her may well be a family affair.” On a naval book that celebrates the simplicity of the sailor’s life: “I don’t know whether I am overpraising the book. Its values happen to coincide with my own, and one does then tend to overpraise.” He is gently amused to learn of J. Donald Adams’s (then editor of the New York Times Book Review) suspicion of the recent crop of American fiction:The twenties and thirties of this century were unsatisfactory, Mr Adams thinks, because they contributed nothing positive; they pricked holes in the old complacency (like Sinclair Lewis) or indulged in private fantasies (like James Branch Cabell) or played about frivolously like Scott Fitzgerald.

  Here’s the funny thing about literary criticism: it hates its own times, only realizing their worth twenty years later. And then, twenty years after that, it wildly sentimentalizes them, out of nostalgia for a collective youth. Condemned cliques become halcyon “movements,” annoying young men, august geniuses. Unlike Adams, Forster had the gift of recognizing good writing while it was still young. Enthusiasti
cally he hails Rosamond Lehmann, William Plomer, Christopher Isherwood. And it’s only 1932! He defends their modern quality against English nostalgia: “If they still believe in what Keats called the holiness of the heart’s imagination, then aren’t we with them, and does it make any difference to us that they don’t use Keats’ words?”

  Which reminds us of the simplest and greatest pleasure of this book: Forster gets it right, often. He’s right about Strachey’s Queen Victoria, right about the worth of H. G. Wells and Rebecca West and Aldous Huxley; right about Eliot’s Ash Wednesday and Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. Sitting on a 1944 panel titled “Is the novel dead?”22 he is right to answer in the negative.

  The editors of this volume, making heavy weather of it, claim “Forster’s talks engaged and helped shape British culture.” I imagine Forster would have been surprised by that statement and perplexed by their concern for his literary status. He thought the words highbrow and lowbrow “responsible for more unkind feelings and more silly thinking than any other pair of words I know.” He was not the sort to get riled up on that subject. He was a popular novelist. Who could say he didn’t know his craft? And not in the workaday way Somerset Maugham knew his. There’s magic and beauty in Forster, and weakness, and a little laziness, and some stupidity. He’s like us. Many people love him for it. We might finish with what Forster himself would say about these talks, what in fact he did say: “There is something cajoling and ingratiating about them which cannot be exorcised by editing, and they have been the devil to reproduce.” But Forster was always a little too humble, a tad disingenuous. His talks are humane and charming, like everything he wrote, and on top of that, they’re good fun to read, and if not quite right for a lecture hall, they’re perfect for a lazy afternoon in an armchair. The title again, for those who missed it: The BBC Talks of E. M. Forster. The price is $59.95.

 
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